The Democratic chairman of the Kentucky House Natural Resources and Environment Committee became the latest state politician on Thursday to criticize the federal government for tougher environmental standards on coal-fired power generating plants.
State Rep. Jim Gooch Jr., who represents mining communities in western Kentucky, complained in a legislative hearing that tougher standards have utilities asking to impose environmental surcharges on customers to recoup billions of dollars that will have to be spent on improving pollution control at coal-fired plants.
"Everybody talks about the war on coal," Gooch said. "This is a war on Kentucky."
In an election-year move that plays well with Kentucky's 18,000 miners and mine operators, Democrats and Republicans have been complaining equally about what they consider "overreaching" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration.
Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, who is seeking re-election in November, has called for the EPA to "get off our backs." His Republican opponent, state Senate President David Williams, has also been sharply critical of the federal government's oversight of the coal industry.
In the latest development to ignite political rhetoric, Louisville Gas and Electric asked the Kentucky Public Service Commission to approve a $ 1.4 billion environmental surcharge to help pay for improvements at coal-fired plants to meet federal emission standards. Simultaneously, Kentucky Utilities asked the PSC for a $1.1 billion environmental surcharge to make similar improvements aimed at lowering emissions of greenhouses gases and other pollutants, including mercury.
Gooch said the tougher federal standards will make it more expensive for utilities to continue using coal as a fuel source, which he said could be devastating to Kentucky's economy.
Gooch's comments came a day after U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told a group of Kentucky coal operators that he also believes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared war on the coal industry.
McConnell said the EPA's regulatory decisions "defy logic." He accused the agency of "changing the rules in the middle of the game" with a burdensome permitting process that has made it difficult for coal operators to open new mines or expand existing ones.
"What EPA is doing is outside the scope of its authority and the law, and it represents a fundamental departure from the permitting process as originally envisioned by Congress," he said. "And it's time for Congress to rein the EPA in."
John N. Voyles Jr., a vice president for transmission and generating services for LG&E and KU, told Kentucky lawmakers on Thursday that tougher federal environmental standards are proving expensive for utilities.
"From our view, there is an unprecedented number of those that are all coming at the same time," Voyles said. "Each of them will have a major impact."
EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris Young didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The stricter standards have widespread support among environmentalists who have been asking for further limits on the amount of air pollution that coal-fired power plants can release into the atmosphere.
The EPA listened to hours of public comment Tuesday in Pennsylvania on rules to curb pollutants such as mercury and arsenic.
"Young children are uniquely vulnerable to the toxic effects of environmental poisons such as mercury and arsenic," said Dr. Kevin Osterhoudt, medical director of the poison control center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "These compounds are especially dangerous to the developing brain and nervous system."